London, (23rd of April 2013): The House of Lords voted in favour of an amendment to the Equality Bill which will outlaw caste discrimination in Britain. Lord Singh of Wimbledon the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) contributed to the debate yesterday, challenging previously uninformed views about Sikhism’s position on caste discrimination.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon highlights Guru Nanak’s condemnation of the caste system: Lords vote in favour of outlawing caste discrimination.October 27th, 2013 | Posted by in Press Releases
He said: “My Lords, I speak in favour of this amendment. I am particularly concerned about the level of misinformation and ignorance used in the other place to argue against legislation. The Minister in the other place made a statement, which was repeated today, that caste is a problem in the Sikh community as well as among Hindus. It is not only inaccurate, but frankly insulting to the Sikh faith. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, totally condemned the whole system of caste. Opposition to discrimination based on caste, birth, gender, race or religion or social status is an essential pillar of Sikh teachings. Sikhism emphasised equality of respect and opportunity for all members of our one human family centuries before these concepts were accepted in the West.
The Sikh gurus repeatedly taught the absurdity of caste, in which the shadow of a person of lower caste was said to pollute the food of a higher caste. Guru Nanak urged them to forsake all notions of caste and ritual purity and look to the inner worth of individuals. That tireless campaigner for human rights, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, from whom we have just heard, commenting on the egalitarian teachings of Sikhism at the time of my maiden speech, rightly emphasized Sikh opposition to caste, quoting Guru Nanak’s observation that in his mother’s womb no man knows of caste.”
He added “Let us get it right. The concept of caste is a hierarchical division of Hindu society into the Brahmins, the top or priestly caste, with Khatris or warriors below, followed by those in commerce and then at the bottom Sudras, cleaners or scavengers. Caste has two essential components: a hierarchy of importance and a notion of ritual purity. Both are rejected in Sikh teachings. When a person converts to Sikhism he or she is required to renounce any former allegiance to caste. By definition one cannot be a Sikh and have a caste.
Guru Nanak warned us about the negative cultural practices that over the years attach themselves to our different religions and distort underlying ethical teachings. It is true for all faiths and it is certainly applies to caste which has little to do with the ethical imperatives of Hinduism. As far back as the 1930s many leading Hindus condemned the iniquity of caste. While Gandhi felt education was the answer, Dr Ambedkar felt education was not enough and legislative action was also necessary. Later, as author of the Indian constitution, Dr Ambedkar successfully included prohibiting discrimination on grounds of caste.
Coming back to this country, we too find ourselves in a debate over combating the evil of caste by education or by legislation. In this debate we have had some widely improbable figures on the number of Dalits in the UK. No such playing with figures is necessary. Whatever the numbers, that which is evil remains evil and Dalits are fully entitled to protection against discrimination, whatever their number.
Many-most-Hindus reject caste discrimination, but without firm action its negative influence could continue for years. It has no place in our more enlightened 21st century, and those who suffer its worse effects should, like those who suffer racial discrimination, be protected by law. Here it is necessary to add that, contrary to misinformation being circulated, legislation will not require people to associate themselves with a particular caste, just as protection against religious discrimination does not require anyone to affiliate themselves to a particular religion.
In conclusion, I should like to emphasise my comment made when we previously discussed this issue. I firmly believe that without the debilitating influence of caste the uplifting ethical teachings of Hinduism will be much more to the fore. It is for these reasons that I support the retention of our amendment.”